Turkey’s top diplomat travels to US amid troubled ties

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ANKARA, Turkey (TBEN) — Turkey and the United States will look to iron out a series of disagreements among NATO allies when Turkey’s foreign minister visits Washington this week. But the expectation that outstanding issues can be resolved is low.

Mevlut Cavusoglu leaves Tuesday for a meeting with US counterpart Antony Blinken during a rare visit by a top Turkish official. US President Joe Biden’s administration has kept its distance from Turkey over President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian direction and policies that curtail rights and freedoms.

Positioned at the crossroads between East and West, Turkey remains of strategic importance to Washington. Last year, the Turkish government helped broker a crucial agreement between Russia and Ukraine that would allow millions of tons of Ukrainian grain to be shipped to world markets, averting a food crisis during the war.

However, NATO allies often disagree on a number of issues, with the biggest disputes centering on Turkey’s purchase of Russian-made missiles and US support for Kurdish militants in Syria.

The acquisition of the S-400 air defense system in 2017 led to sanctions and Turkey’s removal from the next-generation F-35 fighter development program. After the loss of the F-35, Ankara is currently trying to replenish its F-16 fleet. But the deal is facing opposition in Congress.

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Cavusoglu sounded confident this week that the deal to purchase 40 F-16 jets and technology to update its existing fleet would overcome congressional hurdles.

“We have reached an agreement with the government (Biden), and it is important that the government has emphasized that the agreement is important not only for Turkey, but also for NATO,” Cavusoglu told reporters. “If the administration stands firm… then there is no problem.”

Vedant Patel, deputy spokesman for the US State Department, responded Friday to media reports that the Biden administration is also seeking congressional approval to send F-35s to Greece, another NATO member and neighboring country that is increasingly becomes more irritated by the threats from Ankara.

“Türkiye and Greece are both vital, vital NATO allies and, of course, we have a history of supporting their security apparatus. But I’m just not going to prejudge the process on this,” Patel said, citing the name for Turkey favored by Erdogan’s government.

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In Syria, US support for the Kurdish militant group YPG since 2014 has angered Ankara over ties between the YPG and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has been waging insurgency against Turkey and the US and European Union for 39 years.

Support for the YPG has led senior Turkish officials to accuse Washington of links to terror attacks such as the November Istanbul bombing that killed six people.

US concerns about Ankara’s friendly relationship with the Kremlin have been revived by the war in Ukraine. Despite Turkey’s ties to Moscow that have spawned breakthroughs such as the grain deal and prisoner swaps, Washington is concerned about lifting sanctions as Turkish-Russian trade levels have risen over the past year.

Ankara’s dragging along with the ratification of Sweden’s and Finland’s bids to join NATO has increased friction between the allies.

Turkey’s recent attempts at rapprochement with Syria after a decade of bitter enmity have opened a new rift with the US After a meeting of Syrian and Turkish defense ministers in Moscow last month, the US State Department reiterated its opposition to countries that normalize relations with Damascus.

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On Thursday, the department’s chief spokesman, Ned Price, said at a regular media briefing that “we have not seen this regime in Damascus do anything that deserves normalization or improved relations.”

“Anyone dealing with the regime should ask themselves how that involvement benefits the Syrian people – again, a people who have suffered the brutal brunt of what their own government has done to them,” Price added.

The US military has also warned that a threatened Turkish operation against the YPG in northern Syria could destabilize the region and revive the Islamic State group.

In another long-standing dispute, the U.S. Supreme Court was scheduled to hear the Halkbank case on Tuesday. The Turkish government borrower is charged with money laundering, bank fraud and conspiracy for helping Iran evade sanctions. Lawyers for the bank say the 2019 indictment is illegal under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

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Andrew Wilks reported from Istanbul. TBEN Diplomatic writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington.